India and China soften over Tibet

At meetings this week in Beijing, leaders of the two nations reach agreement on old border disputes.

Seeking to downplay old border disputes and to enhance trade, India and China have taken modest mutual steps that could help Asia's largest nations put 40 years of chill behind them.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to China this week signals at least an intention by the two nations to explore a new relationship - and the beginnings of an Asian understanding stretching across the Himalayas. It is the first step taken by the two sides to actually become neighborly, some analysts say, though it may also prove to be a journey of 1,000 miles.

India officially accepted China's definition of "Tibet" and vowed to curb militant-minded Tibetans living in India. China, by opening a trade route to Sikkim on its southern border, informally agreed that India's sovereignty extends to that mountain entity. Yet it appears that a rumored deal allowing a visit by the Dalai Lama to Lhasa, Tibet, engineered by Delhi, has not materialized - though sources say the subject was probably raised informally.

In the post-Sept. 11 era, as the US moves toward more fluid coalitions of interest, India and China may be following suit by pursuing better ties with Washington and with each other. As Chinese leader Hu Jintao stated in a meeting with Prime Minister Vajpayee, "history will show we are partners, not rivals."

Or, as a Western scholar in Beijing puts it, "There is enough maturity in both India and China to contemplate a relationship based on Asian proximity and Asian solidarity, something often talked about, but never realized."

That sounds good on paper. Trade between the two nations has increased from several hundred million in the 1990s to $5 billion today, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry figures. Direct flights between Delhi and Beijing have been under way for more than a year.

There remains, however, significant anti-China feeling in Delhi. When the current Hindu nationalist government came to power in 1998, its stated rationale for testing a nuclear device only days later - an act that forced Pakistan to test - was a perceived threat from China. The security brain trust in Delhi has viewed China as a regional danger, and its intelligentsia have chafed at a perceived cultural dismissiveness of India by the Chinese.

Brief mid-century bright spot

Both countries emerged from occupation and a colonial past in the mid-20th century. There was a brief halcyon period in the late 1950s when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought the two nations would link arms, redefine Asia, and create a developing-world socialist paradise. When Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited India in 1956, Indians thronged the streets shouting "Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai!" - India and China are friends.

But months later, China invaded border areas along the Indian northern frontier. The Indian Army was humiliated, and some historians say Nehru's sense of betrayal and disgrace was total. He died shortly after, and relations went into a deep chill for years as China emerged as a champion of rival Pakistan - and Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi became a force in Indian politics, and a friend of Moscow.

This month, Chinese officials briefing reporters carefully avoided trying to account for the 1962 border debacle - attributing it to a grandly obfuscatory category of "history" and "colonialism." Indian officials are now describing 1962 as just a "clash."

But given decades of enmity, do this week's expressions of cooperation represent more than diplomatic boilerplate?

Maybe. Both countries are more confident, more integrated in global markets, and free from cold-war ties, experts note. Both are nuclear powers, and India is pushing to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Children of the Brahmin elite in India and of the party and business elite in China study at US colleges, own laptops, and have probably seen "Matrix Reloaded."

It is too early to tell whether Vajpayee's visit suggests the origins of a China-Russia-India "counterbalance" to the US, as some observers say, or simply a construction of useful ties that support mutual interests. The idea of a "strategic triangle" was long a dream of such Indian statesmen as I.K. Gujural, who saw it as a counterweight to NATO. But efforts to build such ties during the Kosovo campaign, in particular, failed.

In any event, both Delhi and Beijing are establishing their own relations with Washington. Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's trip to Crawford, Tex., last fall made this clear. Indian leaders regularly tread the hallways of power in Washington.

The question of Tibet

A main question remains the status of the Dalai Lama. Some sources say the two sides are waiting for the exiled Tibetan leader, who lives in northern India, to be further marginalized.

Others say India would not have accepted China's sovereignty over Tibet without a tacit understanding that the Dalai Lama will return at a near-term date and negotiate ways to protect the cultural heritage of Tibet. If true, that would account for the positive reaction from the exiled Tibetan government in northern India.

"We believe that improved relations between India and China will encourage the Chinese leadership to restart negotiations with Dharmsala on the issue of Tibet," said Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Tibetan government-in-exile told Agence France Presse Wednesday.

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